November 9, 2017 / Perspective
John Schweiker Shelton reviews Undomesticated Dissent by Curtis W. Freeman.
September 2, 2015
Despite the rhetoric of pluralism, current social, political, and economic arrangements tend toward the monolithic, primarily giving value to ways of knowing and being that align with and reinforce the status quo. In The Queer Art of Failure, Judith Halberstam wants to incite new and different ways of knowing and being, ways that cut through and provide alternatives to established patterns and norms. Halberstam maintains that we do not really have to look far for these alternatives; in many ways, they are already in front of us, in the gaps and fissures of the dominant cultural narratives and practices that seek to normalize us. Halberstam thus seeks out the ways in which normalizing processes break down or unravel, so as to offer glimpses of other ways of inhabiting the world, both individually and collectively. For, as Halberstam maintains, “Under certain circumstances, failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world” (2-3). Such ways of being are, for Halberstam, queer ways of being, which also means that there is something disruptive about being queer.
One of the highlights of The Queer Art of Failure is Halberstam’s analysis of animated children’s films, especially those using computer-generated imagery (CGI). Despite their corporate production and reliance on familiar and often normalizing plot lines and devices, Halberstam unearths the various elements and figures in these films that subvert and reimagine social, political, and economic realities. Films like Chicken Run (2000), Over the Hedge (2006), Monsters Inc. (2001), Robots (2005), and Finding Nemo (2003) use the childish and the absurd to figure new forms of identity and belonging, forms that simultaneously work to resist and revolt against the forces of capitalist industrialization and consumption that otherwise constrain our ability to imagine and enact utopian alternatives. Thus, these and other “Pixarvolt” films, as Halberstam dubs them, open up “new narrative opportunities” and lead “to unexpected encounters between the childish, the transformative, and the queer” (186).
This notion of the childish as subversive and transformative, as a means to think not only politically but also theologically, is one of the most potent images in Halberstam’s work. Halberstam’s analyses of the Pixarvolt films draw out potential lines for alternative ways of knowing and being, but they also, I suggest, portray children, childhood, and the childish as figures of resistance, revolt, and utopia. For, if subversive and transformative elements lurk in these films, this is at least in part a reflection of their audience. Contrary to the popular and socially acceptable romantic valuations of children, which figure them as innocent, trusting, and fragile creatures who need to be protected and ultimately nurtured toward future success, Halberstam points to a more radical—and, I would say, more accurate—understanding of children in relation to the Pixarvolt films. He writes:
The Pixarvolt films, unlike their unrevolting conventional animation counterparts, seem to know their main audience is children, and they seem to know also that children do not invest in the same things that adults invest in: children are not coupled, they are not romantic, they do not have a religious morality, they are not afraid of death or failure, they are collective creatures, they are in a constant state of rebellion against their parents, and they are not the masters of their domain. Children stumble, bumble, fail, fall, hurt; they are mired in difference, not in control of their bodies, not in charge of their lives, and they live according to schedules not of their own making. (47)
Otherwise put, children inhabit ways of knowing and being that are contrary to established values. Children are, we could say, a little queer, disposed to unruliness and novelty, subversion and transformation. The Pixarvolt films thus “work” in indicating alternative possibilities because they “tell of the real change that children may still believe is possible and desirable” (31).
Insofar as this is true, children are political beings, in the sense that their very being raises questions about the way we structure and know our world. Children are figures of different social, political, and economic arrangements, indices of another world. I say this fully aware of Lee Edelman’s critique in No Future of the politics of “reproduction futurism.” For Edelman, a focus on children or, as he puts it, the Child, constrains politics to the heteronormative and, thus, a conservative vision of the future, a future that ultimately has no place for queerness. Such politics work only to “affirm a structure, to authenticate social order, which it then intends to transmit to the future in the form of its inner Child.” To the extent that the Child in whose future we invest remains “the fantasmatic beneficiary of every political intervention,” queerness attains ethical value in opposition to the Child, to social order, to the future.
Edelman’s critique, however, tends to be one-sided, in that it ignores the various ways in which the real of politics often works against the symbolic of reproductive futurism. That is, his critique for the most part focuses on stated political rhetoric and ignores the various ways that actual social and economic policies work against the child and its future. Our tepid response to climate change, for instance, has little to do with reproductive futurism, as it privileges immediate economic concerns over any concern for the future of our children. Nevertheless, Edelman’s critique is an important caution against the problems that occur when we grant political significance to the figure of the Child. Nevertheless, to claim that children are political beings, in the sense discussed above, is neither a biological or reproductive claim (it is important to have children) nor an ideological one (we must invest our social, economic, and political energies in our children). Rather, it is to make what I would call, somewhat imprecisely, an ontological claim: the being of children, so described, is something that we might seek to become, if we are to work toward liberation and justice. Such becoming should not, of course, be understood romantically, as the recapturing of a supposed lost innocence that we project into the future (e.g., Edelman’s “inner Child” or even Rousseau’s Émile), but in terms of a critical posture that challenges the present and its order: becoming children is becoming queer.
Searching out alternatives to our deadening social, economic, and political arrangements in the being of children also moves us toward the theological, a near relative to politics. In making the move toward the theological, I am quite aware of the risks. Theology, at least in its traditional guises, has a way of gobbling up other discourses, often blunting their force so as to remain faithful to a constrained beatific vision. That is especially the case when theology is done by straight, white males like myself, even if I do not consider myself a theologian, traditional or otherwise. My intent instead is to allow what I have drawn from Halberstam’s insights to disrupt theology, to help us think traditional theological tropes otherwise, as a means of inciting thought and action toward the construction of social, economic, and political alternatives.
More particularly, considering the political being of children helps us to reread and repurpose Jesus’s correlation of the kingdom of God with children: “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” (Luke 18: 16–17 NRSV; cf. Matt. 19:13–15, Mark 10:14–16). Although this passage is often popularly interpreted as indicative of the innocence and trust required for entering the kingdom of God, Jesus’s claims, in context, are more subversive. Insofar as children had no real status in antiquity, Jesus’s privileging of children coincides with the more general overturning of economic, social, and political values that the kingdom of God incites and instantiates against the political kingdoms of the world: “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matt. 20:16).
These contextual insights can be run together with a phenomenological emphasis. Far from the romantic portrayal of children that is common in our culture and even in our theology, Halberstam reminds us that children are wild with respect to contemporary economic, social, and political structures because they think and know otherwise.. It is telling, in this respect, that in the gospels, the one narrative that we have about the childhood of Jesus has him questioning and challenging religious and parental authority (Luke 2:41–52). It is important to emphasize, then, that when Jesus equates the kingdom of God with children, with becoming like children, Jesus himself has been, and perhaps continues to be, a son who acts like a child—and we should imagine that childhood, too, as unruly, even a little queer. Indeed, this unruliness—this childishness—constitutes his ministry and what it means to follow him, which is why the kingdom of which he speaks is not of this world (John 18:36).
Perhaps that is what it means, ultimately, to be “born from above” or “born again” (John 3:3, 7). To be reborn, as Jesus admonishes us, is to become a child again, which means entering into and adopting alternative ways of being and knowing, ways that resist, revolt, and transform. This is, as Halberstam reminds us, what children do and, at least according to Jesus, it is what the kingdom of God is like. All of which means: the kingdom and the children who inhabit it are queer.
 Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), Subsequent references are given parenthetically, in text.
 Children, in other words, believe that magic is possible. See Giorgio Agamben, “Magic and Happiness,” in Profanations, trans. Jeff Fort (New York, NY: Zone Books, 2007), 19–22.
 Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 3; original emphasis.
 Jürgen Moltmann, among others, has made this point. See Moltmann, In the End—the Beginning: The Life of Hope (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2004), 3–18
 Some early Christian communities certainly did not seem to have a problem with imagining Jesus as a bit unruly as a child, as seen, for instance, in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. For a discussion of this work, see Reider Assgaard, The Childhood of Jesus: Decoding the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (Cambridge: James Clark, 2014).
 A “perhaps,” that is, with all the weight that John Caputo gives that small word. See Caputo, The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps (Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 2013).
Hollis Phelps is an assistant professor of religion at The University of Mount Olive. He is the author of Alain Badiou: Between Theology and Anti-Theology.